Monday, September 26, 2011

Hound Dog True by Linda Urban

Last Tuesday was the official release date of Hound Dog True by Linda Urban. It was not an especially noisy book release, but then again, it's not a terribly noisy sort of book. Fans of Linda's first middle-grade novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, will not be surprised by that. Come to think of it, fans of her picture book, Mouse Was Mad, won't be that surprised, either, since Mouse's display of anger is so very, very silent and still.

I must say up front that Linda is a friend of mine. And that I've been in love with this story for a very long time. As in, before it was officially a book, since I had the extreme good fortune to be one of the people who read it when it was still a manuscript. In fact, I still love parts of the book that aren't actually there anymore. So, you know, I'm not entirely unbiased.

However, I should add that part of why I love this book so much is that Linda nails how it feels to be a new kid at a new school - and as a kid who attended eight schools from kindergarten through high school (actually, it was eight between kindergarten and eighth grade), I know what I'm talking about here. My inner twelve-year old felt validated by reading the descriptions of how Mattie felt about getting ready to start at (another) new school.

So, even with my particular biases out in the open, I have to ask: What's not to love about a character-driven story that touches on important issues such as identity - who am I, and what is my place in this world? do I fit in? (I promise I'm not quoting lyrics from "Out Here on My Own" from Fame, though it sorta seems that way at the moment.) And family - how does family fit together? How do family members interact with one another? Is it possible to change established roles and act in a way that's different from an established pattern? And creativity: what is it? how does it manifest itself? and isn't it scary to put yourself and your work product out there where others can see it (and comment on it)? And, at its heart, it's about courage.

The kind of courage that's needed when you move to a new place. The kind of courage it takes to speak up for yourself when things aren't going the way you'd like. The kind of courage it takes just to show up or speak up when you're a shy person. The kind of courage it takes to make art, and to share it with the world. The kind of courage it takes, sometimes, to risk making a new friend.

All of these are things that kids face every day - even non-shy kids have trouble sometimes speaking up when they've got an issue with something going on at home. Or adjusting to a new house and/or school. Or dealing with new friends. Or sharing their music/art/writing/dance or whatever talent it is they have. The world can be a risky place, and this story about Mattie Mae Breen conveys that well, from the beginning of Chapter One, where Mattie notices the warnings on a ladder:

  The stick man has bolts of cartoon electricity shooting out of him. Attention! Avertissement! it says over his head. Atención! Achtung! Do not use ladder in electrical storms. May cause severe injury or death.

  Mattie is glad she is not in an electrical storm. She does not want little bolts of lightning to shoot out of her. Of course, she's just standing at the bottom of the ladder, holding it two-hand steady, eyes level with the warning labels pasted to its metal sides. It's Uncle Potluck up top, like the stick man, so probably Uncle Potluck would get the death. Mattie'd only get severe injury, she figures, and for a minute she thinks about what kind of injury that might be. Lightning could split a tree, she knew. Maybe it would split her. Take a leg off or something. Or maybe she'd singe all over, like a shirt ironed too hot. Either way, it is good they are inside, she tells herself.

  It is good that they are here, inside Mitchell P. Anderson Elementary School, inside Ms. Morgan's fifth grade classroom, inside the room that Uncle Potluck says will be hers once school starts.

  And she keeps it good by focusing on the stick man, not wandering her eyes to the rows of desks or the coat closet doors or the blackboard up front. She reminds herself there is a whole week before this new school starts and she doesn't have to think about any of that yet.

  She can just help Uncle Potluck fulfill his Janitorial Oath.

  She can steady the ladder.

  She can think about severe injury and death.
As you can see, despite the themes I've mentioned, there's a healthy dose of humor in the book - and not just here at the start, but throughout. I love how Mattie works to unbend and allow herself to at least consider the idea of making a new friend, and how she thinks up ways to avoid mixing with the student population at her new school, and how her relationship with her family (her mother and Uncle Potluck) plays out.

And oh, do I love the writing. And the voice. And if you or someone you know is a fan of middle-grade fiction, I am pretty sure they'll like this one, too.

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